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The Memoirist’s Journey

Novelist and essayist Connie May Fowler tells writers what’s a must in memoir, and what to avoid in this web-exclusive interview.

In the May/June Writer’s Digest, Jacquelyn Mitchard details how author Connie May Fowler penned her memoir in real time in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In this online exclusive, Fowler expounds upon the difficulties inherent in writing memoir.

What would you tell writers about creating memoir? What are the considerations that go into deciding that a prospective memoir is valid or valuable?

Connie May Fowler featured

I think all human experience is valuable as is the art of writing it down. Through storytelling we come to know who we are as individuals, societies, and participants in the family of humankind.

However, if you call yourself a writer and you want to forge your experience into a written modality that moves and informs, you need to hone a complex skill set. Beyond being able to craft a brilliant, solid sentence, memoirists must possess a unique vision, a voice, and an aesthetic. They have to be able to connect their experience to something larger than themselves—something beyond the seminal moment—to the broader landscape of human endeavor and experience. In this way, their story gains nuanced, resonant meaning.

Good memoirists don’t peddle anecdotes. They craft artful stories greater than the sum of their parts.

How important is a great voice in writing a memoir?

Without an authentic voice, what else do we have? Words aligned on the page in an order that, we hope, make sense. But without authenticity of voice, those words lack the writer’s essential humanity. A writer’s job is complex. Through words and words alone we have to convey the totality of our experience. No movie reels. No photographs. No paintings. Just language. A flat, inauthentic voice renders a flat, inauthentic story in the same way that a painting that lacks all perspective threatens to be simply pigment on canvas.

Tell the reader what kinds of memoir you admire most, and for what reasons.

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I try to take every book, memoir or novel, on its own merits. What did it set out to achieve, and did it achieve those goals in a fashion that intellectually and emotionally moved me?

Whether it’s Joan Didion retreading time in an attempt to undo her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking, or Ta-Nehisi Coates writing a letter to his son about the brutalities and dangers of being a black man in America in Between the World and Me, or Mark Doty tracking his partner’s journey into death and his own ascendance from grief’s ashes in Heaven’s Coast’—I see in these memoirs the authors’ search for truth and their insistence on translating the failings and triumphs of existence into works of art we can hold in our hands and read and reread. In that process, within the pages of their books, we recognize our own humanity. We are thrust into the beating heart of what it means to be alive, enriched by the journey.

And isn’t that what writing and art are all about? To examine the human condition in all its manifestations so that we might heal and be made better both while we are suspended within the narrative dream and beyond?

How are the memoirist’s skills the same as the fiction writer’s? And how are they different?

Memoirs and novels are both longform narratives and as such demand a similar skillset, including language fluency, plot, character development, tension, setting, etc. They both must be engaging, artful and speak to larger truths.

I believe the primary difference in the two modalities is that in memoir the writer deals with a set of knowable, external facts that are not malleable. Memory is the kernel of memoir and everyone’s memoirs are unique, shaded by perception and experience, to any given circumstance, but the external facts remain static. A memoirist cannot alter that external set of facts. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up on April 20, 2010. As a memoirist, there is no way for me to change the fact of that date.

Novelists, on the other hand, have the freedom and obligation to build worlds from the fertile fields of their imaginations and the only truths they are beholden to are the truths their imagined worlds birth.

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Jacquelyn Mitchard is the bestselling author of 11 novels, among them The Deep End of the Ocean and her newest, Two If by Sea.

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